Here’s How Yummly, the Foodie’s Google, Could Conquer the Kitchen

Here’s How Yummly, the Foodie’s Google, Could Conquer the Kitchen

If you wanted to build a central information hub for the kitchen—connecting consumers with recipe ideas, ingredient lists, shopping assistance, and cooking instructions—you’d probably break the problem down into a few steps.

First you’d build the world’s most powerful recipe search engine. Then you’d add filters to help people discover dishes they like, and avoid those they don’t. You’d offer personalized recommendations, and you’d let users build recipe collections and share their favorites. You’d build a mobile app so that your users can find recipes while they’re at the grocery store. You’d extract the ingredient lists from these recipes and turn them into convenient shopping lists, and you’d group the items into categories so that shoppers could find them more easily as they move through the aisles of their favorite stores.

Then you’d open up your data infrastructure, in order to become the default recipe-search service powering other startups’ food apps and sites. And you’d start making money along the way by rounding up food companies who want to advertise on your search-result pages.

But you’d have to be crazy to go down this particular path, because there’s a food-tech startup that’s already done all that. It’s called Yummly, and it’s poised to become one of the central information brokers—if not the central broker—for consumers who use digital tools to plan their cooking and shopping. (And who doesn’t these days?)

It’s not hyperbole to call Yummly the Google of food. Already, the four-year-old company, which is based in the heart of Silicon Valley and backed by a host of marquee venture and angel investors, attracts 10 million unique visitors per month to its search site. It makes the top iPhone recipe search app in the iTunes App Store. Every day more than 40,000 items get added to Yummly shopping lists, and people add more recipes to their Yummly collections than they do to their Pinterest pinboards. And behind the scenes, Yummly powers recipe-search features for hundreds of partners, including three of the top 10 Web search engines and hot startups like grocery delivery service Instacart.

The company isn’t nearly as familiar to consumers as older recipe-search brands like Epicurious and AllRecipes, and only in the last few months have the full scope of its ambitions become clear. But the advanced search technology at its core, together with its ace team of product designers and developers, give Yummly a good shot at becoming the key data middleman in the growing market where content, food, and commerce meet—roughly the same role companies like Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, and Gracenote are trying to play in the digital music world.

“What we’re trying to do is create the digital kitchen platform,” says Brian Witlin, Yummly’s head of mobile and platform technologies. “I believe Yummly is on track to owning the food-tech space.”

Yummly CEO Dave Feller (left) and head of mobile and platform technology Brian Witlin (right)

Yummly CEO Dave Feller (left) and head of mobile and platform technology Brian Witlin (right)

If you enjoy cooking, you own an iPhone, and you aren’t yet a Yummly user, downloading the free Yummly app, which hit the App Store last month, is the best way to get introduced to the platform. The app’s home page shows you an endlessly scrolling sequence of mouthwatering food closeups drawn from top recipe sites. (Yummly doesn’t publish recipes of its own; it’s a “meta-search” site that aggregates recipes from hundreds of other recipe sites and food blogs.)

If you tap one of the orange “Yum” buttons, that recipe will be added to your personal recipe box. And if you tap on the photo itself, you can see an ingredient list, nutrition facts, and cooking directions. Witlin’s team found a clever and seamless way to bring up the original Web page where each recipe was found—at Epicurious or Chow or Food Republic, say—without forcing you to switch to a mobile browser.

But that’s just the surface. The real power of the Yummly app kicks in when you use the app’s search filters. Say you’re looking for dishes to cook at Thanksgiving (or, this year, Thanksgivingukkah), but you’ve got special dietary requirements—perhaps you’re vegetarian, or lactose-intolerant, or you’ve got celiac syndrome. You can search for “Thanksgiving dishes” and then use the Preferences option to restrict the results just to vegetarian, diary-free, or gluten-free recipes.

In a hurry? You can also narrow down recipe results based on prep time—less than 30 minutes, say. There are also filters for cuisine (Cajun, Chinese, Indian, Italian, and 22 more), courses (appetizer, dessert, etc.), nutrition parameters (calories, carbs, fat, and cholesterol), and tastes (sliders let you adjust results according to how salty, savory, sour, bitter, sweet, or spicy each dish may be).

These elaborate search filters are at the very center of the vision behind Yummly, according to founder and CEO Dave Feller. From 2000 to 2004, Feller ran marketing and strategy at Half.com, the Philadelphia-based online marketplace for used books, music, movies, and games. When eBay bought Half.com in 2004, he moved west, but left the auction giant a couple of years later. “I wanted to do something with my passion, which was food,” Feller explains. “Yummly came about from my severe hatred of mustard and mayonnaise.”

Specifically, Feller liked to find new things to cook on the Web, but it was frustrating to him that no existing recipe search site gave him the ability to filter out recipes that contain mustard or mayo, to which he has a genuine aversion. And it occurred to him that probably he wasn’t alone.

“You could walk up to almost anybody and say, ‘Tell me five foods you don’t like,’ and they’d be able to rattle them off,” Feller says. “Everybody has some particular distaste for an ingredient, or a health condition that requires them to eat in a particular way. When nobody is solving for that, that’s an indication that there is a big opportunity.”

But solving the filtering problem in food search is a lot more complicated than you might think. After all, most general recipe sites don’t provide convenient flags like “vegan” or “gluten-free.” A few give calorie-count estimates, but you won’t find anything on AllRecipes or Epicurious about whether a dish is especially salty or spicy. And if you went to Google and typed in “potato salad recipes without mayonnaise,” all you’d get back is a list of Web pages containing those keywords. Conventional search engines can’t analyze recipes ingredient-by-ingredient, and they can’t handle the Boolean queries needed to reliably filter out offending recipes.

To make their idea for Yummly work, in other words, Feller and his co-founder Vadim Geshel had to bring structure to a content category that was miserably unstructured. They had to create a whole food ontology—a kind of scaffolding for knowledge—and then map hundreds of thousands of published recipes into that ontology. At the simplest level, this meant teaching the Yummly search engine that salmon is a type of fish, that a dish containing bread isn’t gluten-free, or that a recipe that calls for three tablespoons of chili powder is probably going to come out pretty spicy.

The Yummly home page

The Yummly home page

In a way, Yummly was tackling one corner of the much larger semantic search challenge that Google has been addressing through its Knowledge Graph project, which aims to provide users with direct answers to search queries, rather than page after page of links. But so far, food isn’t one of the areas Google has tried to incorporate into the Knowledge Graph—which leaves the field wide open for challengers like Yummly.

Feller and Geshel started Yummly in early 2009, and “we spent almost all of the first year on the underlying technology, understanding how to structure food data,” Feller says. But it’s only because the company made that big early investment that it’s now able to provide users with such fine-grained control over their recipe searches. Need a low-salt vegetarian lasagna recipe that you can cook in under 45 minutes? Try the Pesto Polenta Lasagna at AllRecipes. (You have no idea how hungry it’s making me to write all of this.)

Once the basic Web search engine was working and Yummly had proved that it could handle thousands of users without breaking, the startup went on to add more features like collections, personalized recommendations, the Yum button, and a system for showing targeted ads based on users’ ingredient preferences. Today, Yummly has 31 employees and has raised $7.85 million in venture backing, mostly from Harrison Metal Capital, Intel Capital, Physic Ventures, Unilever Corporate Ventures, Harvard Common Press, and First Round Capital (which was founded by Josh Kopelman, Feller’s old boss at Half.com).

Witlin joined Yummly this spring after stepping down as the CEO of Shopwell, a fascinating Ideo spinoff that I profiled at length in November 2010. Shopwell’s app made it easier for grocery shoppers to find foods that fit their nutritional needs. That was pretty good practice for Witlin’s move to Yummly, as it turned out.

Witlin’s first job was to unveil Yummly’s application programming interface, or API—that’s the technology outside developers can use to tap into Yummly’s search index and provide filtered results to their own users. Already, more than 2,300 developers have signed up to use the API, Witlin says. (In addition to targeted ads, charging commercial users for access to the API is one of the ways Yummly makes money.)

His next project was to lead the development of a Yummly app for the iPhone. A basic app was already under construction when he arrived, but Witlin decided his team should scrap it and start over. “Mobile was an area where the company had not focused, and I felt like we could combine the search technology and my expertise to launch something that was going to own the space and really kick ass,” Witlin says.

What made this tricky is that in the recipe-search and grocery-list category, there are already way too many cooks in the kitchen. There are thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of recipe manager, grocery list, and cookbook apps in Apple’s iTunes App Store—indeed, we’ve written about many of them here at Xperience. “We didn’t want to do just another me-too app,” Feller says. “We wanted something that could be the number-one recipe app.”

The app Yummly finally released in September is pretty traditional, if you just look its basic features—browsing recipes, building collections, and adding ingredients to a shopping list. But it has rocketed to the top of the app charts for two basic reasons: the powerful search filters, and the loving care put into the design of the app by Witlin’s team, especially lead mobile developer Yuri Yuryev, whom Witlin calls “an engineer and an artist in one.”

One small example illustrates Witlin and Yuryev’s almost Jobsian attention to detail. To make the browsing experience on the app’s home page more immersive, the team programmed the headline text on the edge-to-edge food photos to disappear when you’re flicking the images up and down. But when the photos slide to a stop, the text floats gently back into view.

“It took six weeks to get the parallax text to feel just right,” Witlin says. “The biggest risk we could take was not being noteworthy, so it was worth it to invest that last 10 percent to make the app really stand out.”

Next on the mobile team’s agenda is a Yummly app for the iPad, the device that users are more likely to take into the kitchen while they’re actually cooking. The company is also working to add more ways for big food brands to show ads based on the recipes users are browsing, both on the Yummly site and in the app. It’s also bringing in more API partners—its deal last month with Instacart being an especially interesting example. Instacart members can do a Yummly-powered recipe search from within the Instacart app, then automatically add all the ingredients in a chosen recipe to their Instacart shopping list for home delivery.

“One of the reasons we took the leap and launched a public API was that while we very much want to be the hub of the kitchen, we also want to be the hub of this ecosystem,” Feller says. “There are a lot of players in food tech, and we have the best underlying technology for recipes, which means we can power a lot of these apps.”

Beyond that, Yummly might even turn into something like the central data clearinghouse for an increasingly fragmented food economy. The rise of the locavore movement, farmer’s markets, and instant delivery services threatens the central role of the supermarket chains and their ubiquitous coupons and circulars, the traditional channels for driving consumer awareness of food brands. That, in turn, makes it harder than ever for food companies to connect with customers on the scale required to justify the cost of launching a new product. Over time, Yummly could become not just a discovery tool for home cooks, but also—because it knows what recipes users are putting into their collections, and what ingredients they’re putting on their shopping lists—a “big data” player providing food makers with detailed picture of trends in consumer demand.

Yummly’s focus on individual tastes and experiences also “has very specific implications for the future of the personalized Web,” says Adam Salomone, associate publisher at Harvard Common Press, which was among Yummly’s first investors. “You see it in Pandora music listening…The ability to filter out that which is irrelevant and surface the content that is most highly aligned with user interest. I don’t doubt we’ll see more of this kind of matching to come.”

“This data platform in food can be incredibly powerful going forward,” Witlin sums up. I agree—and I expect to see Yummly turning up as an ingredient in numerous food-tech products and deals.

The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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